Planes, planes, games, and gems.
Been out at a lot of gigs this month, as I reach the midpoint of my ongoing quest to punish Future Callie with a disease-riddled body and tinnitus in the name of some fun nights out. At time of writing, I’m up to 16 gigs in 2022 with another 16 currently locked-in guaranteed before the year’s out and several more than that I’m still umming and ahhing over. That’s a lot of gigs, maybe too many when listed out like that and when I keep coming down with various flus as my shit body goes “oh, thought you could exert yourself and us not have something to say about it, wiseass?” But this entry is not about any gigs specifically or how much I love them or an excuse as to why my writing’s dried up again; I’m not gonna recycle material that quickly. Rather, it’s about my other favourite(?) topic in these things: gender dysphoria!
Specifically, now that I’m getting out more often, I’m starting to feel self-conscious again about the limits of which I am able to present myself. As a non-binary person in their mid-20s yet to engage in any kind of treatment – cos the powers running this country actively want trans people like me dead – my physical appearance is very traditionally masculine. My face isn’t as soft and rounded as I would like, my chin protrudes outwards, I grow facial hair at a rate of actual knots, I’m tall but in a lanky manner, my hair can be long but the hairline is appallingly short (as I rediscover every time I use the shower). I pass without trouble as cis man and there’s not a whole lot I can do to change that. Even when I got a friend of mine to doll me up for a photoshoot last year, where my current (at time of writing) pics/headshots are from, the most we could realistically do on a budget and without medication (which I can’t get without treatment) was cover up the roots of my facial hair and hide my massive eyebags. Sure, I look somewhat cute but I still don’t look how I’d fully like to.
Gigs somewhat exacerbate that longing desire in me, especially the ones I’ve been to this month. At illuminati hotties, Anamanaguchi, and especially My Chemical Romance, I’ve seen a lot of women around my age with looks I wish I could pull off. A sort of feminised masc or tomboy or alt-girl or hipster chick or whatever the fuck we’re calling it, I don’t pretend to know fashion stuff. Clear-skin faces, smart jackets, rounded spectacle-type glasses, short undercut hair with either a blue/purple streak or just fully that. I realise this all sounds like nothing special, probably cos I’m doing a terrible fucking job at describing it – partly cos again I have no real knowledge on fashion stuff, partly cos I second-guess myself so much that I worry whatever I write just goes full CREEP VOYEUR vibes – but I see women like these and wish I too could look like them. My idealised physical self where the only things holding me back from achieving that goal would be the preparation effort required each morning and my crippling lack of self-confidence.
Instead, I can merely long for something which can’t be. My facial structure can’t really pull off circular glasses, my body hair is too dark-coloured to be sufficiently hidden for long, and in no universe can I get away with blue/purple hair no matter what my supportive friends try to insist. Puberty did a real number on me very quickly back in the day and locked me into a very limited look I don’t feel I can break away from. And by the time I do finally get some proper treatment… well, firstly, I think there’s only so much that medication/hormones will be able to do. But also I’ll almost definitely be in my 30s and no way in hell can a 30 year-old successfully rock blue/purple hair. Another thing to add to my list of regrets over not figuring myself out sooner, I guess.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this month.
Tekken: Blood Vengeance [Tuesday 10th]
Dir: Yōichi Mōri
In the grand tradition of pretty much every single video game movie to ever exist, Tekken: Blood Vengeance is rubbish. The pacing is dire, the characters dull, the plot and world incomprehensible for anybody not already invested in the source material whilst also bastardising a number of characterisations that’d annoy long-time fans of the franchise. Mostly, it’s just really boring. For a CG anime based on a fighting video game, itself centred around a fighting tournament, there’s precious little fighting within these 92 minutes. Instead, we get a weirdly pared-down high-school spy movie for half the runtime where nothing noteworthy occurs, which eventually gets hijacked by an expedited version of the Mishima bloodline war which became an outright cancer on the game narrative around this time.
In fact, if anything, Blood Vengeance’s failure is more an indictment of Tekken’s attempts in the last decade to consolidate its storytelling ambitions around a singular thread. Not to steal too much from the excellent Writing on Games video about the subject – though it is worth noting that Hamish and I have basically the exact same opinions – but the Mishima conflict which is the central throughline of the Tekken franchise worked best when used as the relative straight-man to the wackier and goofier motivations of every other character who operated around it. The comedic and emotional juxtaposition of having this grand family tragedy constantly hijacked by a Japanese schoolgirl who wants to build a giant theme-park, a prideful Korean street punk harbouring a one-sided feud against one of the series’ main protagonists, two assassin sisters engaged in an oft-petty rivalry which is nonetheless born out of deep resentful spite. The independence and validity of each character’s stories and motivations which just happen to intersect with the larger narrative is what gives the series’ narrative its charm and, err, character.
When Tekken forces everyone and everything to operate within and in service of that Mishima narrative, as the games have done and as Blood Vengeance insists upon, that character is actively drained. The world gets smaller, the tone homogenized, the potential narrative possibilities minimised because everything which happens needs to be potential canon even when it would still make no sense. (Series director Katsuhiro Harada would infer that Blood Vengeance is non-canon almost a year after release, although the film’s narrative operates in this awkward limbo where it tries really hard to kayfabe a canonicity in spite of the prior-released Tekken 6 frequently contradicting it.) What this means for Blood Vengeance is that all of its round cast get shoved into the square holes of a Shonen drama whose inciting incidents aren’t depicted; whose motivations aren’t properly explained to non-fans; and whose central figures are identikit angsty brooding hunkster boys with pancake personalities that cannot hold up a narrative drama by themselves, plus Generic Anime Robot Girl A. (A terrible dub job does not help things; series foreigner Shin Kamiya, the most angsty brooding hunkster boy, has a vocal delivery akin to Colm from Derry Girls whether he’s play-flirting with Xiaoyu or cursing out the architect of his suffering.)
The animation mostly holds up when looked at through its video game roots; vivid in colours and strong character designs for those originating in-series. Two of the three major fight scenes – Xiaoyu vs Alisa and the Jin/Kazuya/Heihachi three-way – are damn-good scraps when they eventually turn up; animation studio Digital Frontier’s history handling the Tekken 5 and 6 opening CGs coming into play with impactful hits, a showreel approach to letting characters get their shit in, and quality non-verbal structure to fight construction. Then, in the last 10 minutes, there’s a brief thankful break into the old Tekken batshittery when a thought-dead Heihachi unleashes the spirits of Mokujin that assemble together like Mega-Smith from The Matrix: Path of Neo. But otherwise Blood Vengeance is a snooze whose plotting fails to hang together on even the most basic cause-and-effect levels and is mainly notable for its source material’s shortcomings than anything the film itself does.
Uncut Gems [Thursday 12th]
Dirs: The Safdie Brothers
One of the last few films I saw in The Before Times which had led to it rather skirting on the edges of my memory in the years since. Fortunately, it still holds up on rewatch. A brilliant, anxiety-triggering, obnoxious, tightly-wound and tightly-controlled trainwreck that finally made me get the Safdies. I remain amazed at the quality of the sound mixing and sound editing, especially. The way with which editor Chris Chae and mixers Anton Gold, John-Paul Natysin, Helmut Scherz and Michael Sterkin balance the cacophony of voices and noise in a manner which manages to be overwhelming yet simultaneously clear. That sensation of being trapped in the middle of four different screaming conversations, but somehow able to always hear exactly the important info required to keep track of what everybody is so mad about. Incredible stuff, that’s the kind of work they’re supposed to reward with Oscars.
Unfortunately, Dad was not a fan. In fact, he hated it very quickly and I likely would’ve lost movie-picking privileges for a very long time had I not insisted we watch Top Gun again a couple of days later. So, 0/10, better luck next time, Safdies!
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness [Saturday 14th]
Dir: Sam Raimi
Allusions to SPOILERS
It’s… fine. As a passive watching experience where you don’t think too hard and just enjoy the ride of one-damn-thing-after-another plotting with constant forward momentum, it’s fine in the way that nearly all Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are by this point. Fun frivolous spectacles which go down smooth. In almost any critical facet, however, this thing is what we scientists officially term “a hot mess.” Despite trying to be the colour-between-the-lines director Marvel evidently wanted him to be – I don’t buy the “complete creative freedom” line from interviews, not for a second – Raimi’s efforts at putting his own authorial stamp further exacerbate the major unfocussed conflicts of interest that Multiverse of Madness gets pulled in all directions of. The tension between the slightly gonzo, campy, haunted house, sincerely goofy, and hopefully emotional Doctor Strange Raimi wants to make; and the sanitized, fanservice, four-quadrant, spectacle-laden, snarky, and franchise-maintenance work Marvel insists he make. Neither side quite manages to win out, resulting in easily the messiest MCU movie since at least Avengers: Age of Ultron.
You do not need to have kept up with trades and tabloids about reshoots and retools to tell that this thing went through some major production turbulence. Michael Waldron’s screenplay is a cauldron of exposition dumps, placeholder quips, callbacks to past MCU works, and flat characterisations which never manages to find or focus upon any actual heart in the story. Danny Elfman’s score has these occasional flashes of character – classical supernatural horror piano glissandos, a brief detour into a late-90s witchy alt-rock sludge – that get outnumbered by the usual beige-ness of Marvel scores. Speaking of which, Raimi’s efforts to Raimi up the visual language are repeatedly undercut by this franchise’s uniformly washed-out colour palette and over-reliance on green-screening every single aspect it thinks it can possibly get away with. The infamous Illuminati sequence is the epitome of this overall dynamic; Marvel and Raimi both trying to have their respective cakes in ways which expose the fundamental limitations of their creative arrangement together.
Multiverse is a mess, but it’s not an unenjoyable mess. As much as the Marvel machine tries to stamp his footprint out to a degree where the resulting tone is a lurching affair, there are enough of Sam Raimi’s fingers on the finished product that one can just about call it a Sam Raimi movie. The camera swoops, dolly-zooms, whip-pans, POVs, and overall tries for an in-world tangibility that this series is otherwise not enamoured with. The themes of self-sacrifice, unobtainable love, and self-belief are firmly in the wheelhouse of the man behind the best Spider-Man movies (sans Spider-Verse), even if the screenplay hobbles their execution. When allowed to lean into the B-movie horror that made his fame, Raimi does a quality family-friendly version with decent jumps, memorable monster designs, an effort to add in some practical effects/make-up, and a few gnarly kills. The musical note fight is pure silliness and I love it. More than anything, the cast’s palpable fun are what keeps everything just about hanging together. Particularly Elizabeth Olsen who is clearly having the time of her life going to Vamp Town and dining on its all-you-can-eat buffet of scenery, relishing the chance to fully translate that Wanda comics arc to the big screen with such glee that it just about negates the uncomfortable sexist implications which are also unquestioningly carried over.
So, yeah, mixed overall. To be fully honest, Phase 4 of the MCU right now feels adrift without a real plan, pumping out movies and TV shows from a sense of obligation rather than a real creative drive to do these stories. Maintenance more than anything else, and they’re sacrificing character or proper emotional connection in order to keep that train running. For an example relating specifically to Multiverse: America Chavez has the same issue as Carol Danvers, Kate Bishop, and all of the Eternals in that I simply don’t know what their characters are. I know their actors, I know they all like to snark in the exact same way that literally every single MCU character does, but I don’t know what’s unique to them. I don’t know why I’m supposed to care about them now besides some vague promise that they’ll be important or characterful later down the line. I know from hanging out with NEEEEEEEERDS that America is a lesbian in the comics, and with that meta-gaming knowledge I can read a queer narrative into her struggles with dimension-hopping powers that are inextricable from her character even without her sexuality being brought up in-film. But without that meta-gaming, her function and character are mostly just a McGuffin designed to make plot happen; so little time being given to her personality, her wants and desires, or her self-confidence arc because…?
Like I said, this is all so very frustrating when you start picking the film apart even slightly in the aftermath of viewing. But in the moment of watching, it’s a decent time with the now-standard wobbly-ass opening third. There’s some cool stuff, some fun stuff, some stuff which makes me want Sam Raimi to go off and make his first proper Raimi movie since Drag Me to Hell in 2009, and some stuff which mildly irked me – they couldn’t even wait four full minutes before ripping out all the intriguing consequences of that last main shot cliffhanger, for fuck’s sake. But it’s… fine. I would like superhero movies to stop being just fine.
Everything Everywhere All at Once [Saturday 14th]
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent [Saturday 14th]
Dir: Tom Gormican
Could’ve stood to be more up its own arse and trying way less to be an actual movie. Unbearable Weight is a disjointed series of half-thought ideas awkwardly smushed together and failing to make full usage of any of them. In particular, I’m struck by how little the meta idea of Nic Cage actually seems to matter to this story. A major part of this premise is limited instead to just a few Con Air references that could’ve come from the equivalent of any cult actor with an Internet-burnished mythology. So, his film character ends up really basic and interchangeable, whilst the flailing script keeps pulling him away from the scenes that build his relationship with Javier, the real heart of the film. What we have, ultimately, is a slightly funnier and significantly less annoying Seven Psychopaths. Even then, it’s just occasionally chucklesome and much blander than this movie has any right being. When Nic and Javi are hanging out, sans the cheap and limply-staged action or half-cocked efforts at tension, there is something here thanks to Cage and Pedro Pascal’s sweet easy-going chemistry together. But those flashes of charm just make everything else surrounding the vibe scenes all the more disappointing.
Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers [Friday 20th]
Dir: Akiva Schaffer
Allusions to SPOILERS
Lotta fun! Strikes a strong balance between Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in the IP-crossover neo-noir sense, that Muppets reboot from 2011 we don’t talk enough about in the sweet earnest love of the source material, and Honest Trailer-style inside-baseball snark-jokes that just about stay the right side of sufferable. Even with all the toons being awkward composites or 3D creations never-fully-convincingly made to resemble traditional 2D, Schaffer and his team create a believable idiosyncratic world of the kind that cartoon-obsessed 8-year-old Me would’ve wanted so badly to live in. Like, in spite of the darkness and adult cynicism which underpins the movie’s almost BoJack Horseman depiction of Hollywood – with a central metaphor which compares IP copyright violation to SEX TRAFFICKING FUCKING HELL – the presentation reminds me a lot of those old CN City bumpers from mid-00s Cartoon Network. A living mutable world rather than an IP parade/reference-fest ala Space Jam: A New Legacy where the clear love for animation’s history and vast expanse of possible styles shines through at every turn. It’s also shot shockingly well by Larry Fong, really plays up those stylish noir shadows and seediness.
Pretty much the best possible version of this it could be. The dynamic between Chip & Dale really works, the jokes are often funny, and I think kids will dig it in spite of some of the references (and central metaphor) being well outside their age range. Honestly, the true epitome of the Chip ‘n Dale movie comes from the fact that it includes Ugly Sonic – an even-more terrifyingly uncanny version of the hated original Sonic design from the live-action movie – but gives the character multiple scenes, several jokes not based around his ugliness, and even a little grace via his endearing self-confidence and minor-yet-key role in the plot. What could’ve been a cheap joke or LeoPointsAtScreen.jpeg moment instead takes on its own life and demonstrates a real fan’s creativity and devotion to their charge. Rescue Rangers features a lot more moments like that and is why, even if the film’s still an easy trifle not quite transcending the cynical defensive reads that all of the Mouse House’s meta-works get coated in, it works so damn well.
Top Gun: Maverick [Wednesday 25th]
Dir: Joseph Kosinski
There is a hell of a lot great or better in Top Gun: Maverick. It features Tom Cruise’s best performance since Edge of Tomorrow, not coincidentally also the first time since that modern classic a film has broken down his star persona and allowed his character to look vulnerable and uncertain in ways that are legitimately affecting. His big scene with Val Kilmer around the midpoint aches with emotional weight both meta-textual (cos all Cruise films are meta-works at this point) and in-universe that’s left almost entirely on Cruise’s shoulders. It looks and sounds absolutely incredible, indebted to Tony Scott whilst having its own soulful masculine muscle that Joseph Kosinski honed on the underappreciated Only the Brave. The flight scenes are truly exhilarating with multiple “holy shit, how the fuck did they do that?!” moments of both flying and filming. It’s a proper well-structured movie, this time, with actual stakes and sensible A -> B plotting. The killer all-action final third is the kind Hollywood often seems to forget how to do in recent years…
So why can’t I muster up much enthusiasm for Maverick compared to the original Top Gun? Why, even though I was enjoying myself during viewing (and REALLY enjoying myself during the flight scenes), did I also feel like I should’ve been enjoying myself much more? Maybe because Maverick is a “proper” film? In taking the Creed II approach of trying to transform one of the 80s most cartoonish media relics into something respectable with genuine pathos whilst still treating that original as sacrosanct, I find the results are more generic and less characterful. That marriage of coke-addled imperialist propaganda cheese with excellent technical craftsmanship which successfully breaks through the defences of good taste was kinda the whole appeal of Top Gun. Maverick is a very good action movie, but lacks those x factors the original had in spades. Winsome characters, killer music, sexual heat both straight and homoerotic.
A part of me also wonders if maybe the thing holding me back from loving Maverick the same way all of my critic friends do is the same reason why I have just never gotten Mission: Impossible despite that franchise on-paper being my shit. Namely: I’ve never bought into the cult of Tom Cruise like most of his fans do. I think he’s a very good actor, I think he has a lot of charisma and I like seeing him on movie screens, but I don’t subscribe to that Last Movie Star narrative everyone else and he clearly sees in him. The thrill of watching Cruise risk his life for our entertainment; jumping off buildings, cliffs, planes; flying the flag for old-school ways of filmmaking that are a dying breed in movies heavily designed around and about that very concept with him as its physical embodiment. None of that does anything for me, personally. It doesn’t turn me off – I don’t look at Cruise vehicles the same way I look at Gerard Butler vehicles and go “Christ, what an egomaniac” – but it doesn’t really engage me either. So, I don’t have much to latch onto with these movies besides their solid technical bona fides which can be fun but fleeting.
Real “it’s not you, it’s me” situation going on, I know. Maybe after the rest of this Summer’s dire/anaemic slate has passed, I’ll look back on Maverick’s strong execution of action blockbuster fundamentals more fondly than my “eh, it was alright” sensations right now. But I just don’t see myself coming back to it like I do the original. Much like with Bad Boys for Life, this is technically the better movie but why did we have to sacrifice the idiosyncratic charm in the process?
Blazing Saddles [Saturday 28th]
Dir: Mel Brooks
This movie simply would not work without Cleavon Little. I mean, yes, Blazing Saddles would probably still be a funny slice of absurdist genre piss-taking; the Mel Brooks of 1974 knew precisely how important aping the look and feel of a parody’s target is in making the silliness truly pop. And that’s not to discredit the murderer’s row of supporting actors taking well-deserved spotlight bows; Gene Wilder’s laconic daydream airiness, Madeline Kahn’s German Elmer Fudd vixen, Harvey Korman’s snidely intellectualness. But Cleavon Little is why Saddles doesn’t completely fall apart into offensive disaster. His unflappable Bugs Bunny routine as Sheriff Bart – even before the connection gets made explicit by the film playing “Merrily, We Roll Along” – is the reason why Brooks’ efforts at satirizing racial dynamics in both Westerns and early 70s America land with the potency they do. A mixture of effortless cool, mischievous wit, and bemused straight man whose presence – a kind of idealised reflection of Black America’s self-image in the same way that Bugs was for White Americans during WWII – exposes racism’s inherent absurdity. The jokes simply would not work if he wasn’t so good at letting everything roll off him, since Brooks’ screenwriting team otherwise play way too close to “ironically racist jokes” than “jokes about racism.” He’s also just a really funny, often-underplaying dude. Deserved a way better career after this; major indictment of the racist entertainment system of the day that he didn’t get one.